SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Very little has gone to plan for the San Francisco 49ers during the first two weeks of the 2020 season.
They lost their best pass rusher, Nick Bosa, for the year with a torn ACL. Star tight end George Kittle and All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman have already missed time with injuries, and pass rusher Dee Ford's status is uncertain as he deals with a dreaded back injury.
Another hurdle to overcome is the situation at running back. Starter Raheem Mostert is expected to miss Sunday's game against the New York Giants with an MCL sprain and backup Tevin Coleman could land on injured reserve and miss four weeks with what the team is calling a knee sprain.
Which means Jerick McKinnon, who missed the last two seasons with a knee injury, is slated to become the every-down back.
Sound crazy? It might be, considering McKinnon tore his ACL just before 2018 season and then had another surgery to pack bone marrow from his hip into the graft in his knee after he was ruled out for 2019.
"I'm very confident in Jet. He's done a great job in all the reps that he's gotten in these two weeks," head coach Kyle Shanahan said Wednesday. "Every time he's gotten opportunities, he came through for us. Obviously, with those two guys being out, he should get more opportunities this week and he deserves it. I know he's excited for it and we're excited to see him."
The 49ers also believe McKinnon can withstand an increased workload. McKinnon is far enough removed from the injury that he's no longer on a pitch count, Shanahan said, which is often afforded to players early in the year coming off significant injuries.
"Jet's good to go from what we see, from what the doctor see and from what he tells us," said Shanahan.
The team has said McKinnon was fully cleared for football activities last November, months after the follow-up procedure on his knee. He spent the COVID-19 offseason working out vigorously, which included stints at the gym owned by new 49ers left tackle Trent Williams and Detroit running back Adrian Peterson in Houston.
Williams has been one of McKinnon's most vocal proponents coming into the season. He said during training camp he thought McKinnon was a surefire breakout player based on the way he worked out and looked in practice. Williams doubled down on that claim Wednesday when asked about the idea of McKinnon becoming San Francisco's bell cow with Mostert and Coleman on the shelf.
"Speaking on his work ethic, honestly, it's hard to even think that he's human sometimes after watching him," Williams said. "I have never seen anybody work on a level with Adrian Peterson and bring that intensity and bring that same type of competitive nature to the workout until (Peterson) brought Jet down and those two (were) head horsemen in the workouts every week, every day.
"Jet works like a machine. That's why I couldn't imagine him being on the field and not being a breakout player, not being that guy who can carry the load, an every down back. And I think he's showing us that."
McKinnon made his 49ers debut in Week 1 against Arizona, 883 days after signing a four-year, $30 million contract on the first day of the 2018 league year. San Francisco this spring reworked McKinnon's contract into a minimal one-year pact given the uncertainty surrounding a running back that missed two straight seasons because of a surgically repaired knee.
But McKinnon has scored two touchdowns in his two games while impressing his coaches and teammates. He has 101 yards on just six carries since returning. Surely he won't average nearly 17 yards per rush with an increased workload, but his impressive yardage total speaks to how effective he could be with more touches.
McKinnon has been used primarily as the team's third-down back. He nearly scored a touchdown on a third-and-goal from the 17-yard line in Week 1. And last week against New York, McKinnon converted a third-and-31 from deep in San Francisco's territory with an impressive 55 yard run that helped resuscitate a dead possession into field goal.
The 49ers targeted McKinnon in 2018 to be their every-down back after letting Carlos Hyde leave in free agency. McKinnon had been used sparingly in Minnesota as one of Peterson's backups, and signing with San Francisco meant a chance to become a featured weapon for the first time in his career before suffering the knee injury a week before the 2018 opener which, oddly enough, was against his former team, the Vikings.
McKinnon had a standout training camp and was a particularly tough cover for linebackers in one-on-one passing drills. He made a number of plays against Fred Warner and Kwon Alexander, who are considered two of the better coverage linebackers in the NFL.
Warner said he thought McKinnon might look better now than he did before the injury.
"His confidence has continued to grow over the course of not only training camp, but now going into the season. Two games in, I think he looks great," Warner said. "He's had the right mindset since even before playing this year, during those injuries. And he has that chip on his shoulder, he's excited for the opportunity this week to get after it."
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